Legislators seek to create Gov’t Liaison Office for Deaf Community

By The Star Staff

The House Committee on Social Welfare, People with Disabilities and the Elderly, chaired by Rep. Lisie Burgos, began public hearings Tuesday to establish the Law for the Deaf Community Liaison Office of the Government of Puerto Rico.

“The deaf community in Puerto Rico faces a disadvantage in terms of access to services provided by the government,” Burgos said in her initial turn. “The consequences of not being able to have an effective mechanism for communication between a deaf person and government entities can lead to different problems. Such is the case of Janet Viera Grau, a young deaf woman from Vega Alta who took her own life after the state removed her 6- and 7-year-old children from the home without the intervention of a sign language interpreter.”

At the beginning of the public hearing, the committee observed a minute of silence for Viera Grau.

Attending the public hearing were the president of the Escucha Mis Manos y Mis Manos Que Obran corporation, Aslin Díaz; the leader of the EFATA Ministry of La Senda Antigua Church, Stephanie Hernández; and a deaf mother, Mileika Rivera.

“The deaf population, in addition to lacking services, faces other problems of inequality due to communication barriers and low levels of literacy,” said the leader of the EFATA Ministry.

Hernández emphasized the case of a Loíza couple, who, because they did not know about the help available and because of the lack of interpreter services, ended up living in an inhuman way. She also highlighted the lack of interpreter support in government agencies, such as the Department of Transportation and Public Works.

Denis Márquez Lebron, the spokesman for the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), noted that “four years ago Senate Bill 1486 was unanimously approved, which sought to create the Deaf Community Liaison Office in the government in view of the needs of this population.”

“Then the bill was sent to La Fortaleza, which vetoed it due to budget considerations; that is, it was not signed,” the PIP legislator said.

The public hearing was also attended by Yahaira Colón, Liesl Costa and Juan Troche from the Puerto Rico Society for Legal Assistance (SAL by its Spanish acronym); the interim advocate of the Ombudsman’s Office, Gabriel Corchado; and the director of membership of the Puerto Rico Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Angelique García.

In support of the measure, Colón from SAL said that “deaf people have the right to be provided with an interpreter who effectively guarantees communication.”

“With regard to the relationship and experience with the deaf community of PR, we express that although there is a public interest of equality, accessibility and attention to the needs of people with disabilities, unfortunately regarding the deaf community, public policy must be evaluated and reformed,” Colón said.

She also noted the importance of considering the establishment of a Deaf Community Liaison Office, since in that way the island’s deaf population would have specialized, dignified care focused on its needs and culture, and which guarantees the coordination and provision of government services that have historically been denied.

“An understanding of the deaf community that compels us to change the administrative culture of the Puerto Rico government agencies is important,” Colón added.

Meanwhile, the Advocate for People with Disabilities raised the concern of funds to cover the costs of implementation.

“We have to ask ourselves the mandatory question of what would happen if the funds are not available to cover the implementation costs,” said Corchado, who supports the bill. “We request that it be considered as a priority of the Office of Management and Budget in this case, the identification of the budget line of funds, if it is desired that this measure has a minimum effective scope.”

For its part, the Puerto Rico Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf recommended to the committee that staff positions at the Liaison Office be filled primarily by deaf individuals.

“We all believe that it must be a requirement, that those who occupy most of the positions are deaf,” said García, who favors the measure, but identified areas of the bill that should be reviewed.

Citizen Victory Movement Rep. Mariana Nogales reiterated that “deaf people have human rights and [the government] cannot continue to exclude them.”

“We have to create the correct conditions so that this population has adequate services,” she said.

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